Where We Live

Housing That Ranks High at Fort Belvoir

At Fort Belvoir's new Village Center, there are 25 townhouses over stores, including a barber shop, a spa, dry cleaners and a food market. (By Ann Cameron Siegal For The Washington Post)

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 10, 2007

This is not your father's military housing.

At Fort Belvoir's new Village Center, the new-urbanist style of community planning has resulted in the first mixed retail-residential space on a Defense Department property.

"We're sitting in a Starbucks on a military base," Don Dees, Fort Belvoir's chief of plans and policy information, said during an interview at the coffee shop. "Wrap your head around that, then think that above us is a three-bedroom townhouse."

There are 25 townhouses over street-level retail spaces that include a barber shop, a spa, dry cleaners, a food market and a rental furniture store.

Nearby, in Vernondale Village, Ann Tucker chats with neighbors while children romp in a large grassy courtyard and climb on colorful playground equipment, steps from their front doors.

In the past, military housing has sometimes seemed like an afterthought, especially for enlisted soldiers. Functional but bland communities where everything looked alike often greeted soldiers and their families.

Since the Military Housing Privatization Initiative was passed by Congress in 1996, residences on 36 bases are being transformed into attractive villages meant to have a welcoming style on par with civilian neighborhoods.

Under a provision called the Residential Communities Initiative, financing, expertise and design ideas were brought in from the private sector, freeing the military from building and managing its housing while making the living environment more enticing to soldiers and their families. And yes, retaining soldiers is a primary goal.

In 2002, Clark Realty Capital, a local company, and Pinnacle Property Management of Seattle won bids to design, build and manage the Belvoir project under a 50-year lease. The companies joined with the Army to form a company called Fort Belvoir Residential Community.

At focus groups, they found that military families had three major requests: garages; more storage; and wider stairways, to make furniture moving easier.

"We're now providing housing commensurate with the quality of their service," Dees said.

Fort Belvoir, in Fairfax County, had 2,070 housing units before the transformation began, and that number is to remain the same, though the new units would be bigger. Older homes averaged 1,100 to 1,400 square feet, project director Casey Nolan said. "You couldn't fit a queen bed on the second floor," he said. Excluding garages, new houses average 1,800 square feet.

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